Manresa (Los Gatos, CA) – A Spring Birthday Meal
Despite dalliances with Ubuntu (Napa) and too many pizzas lately,1 Manresa is still my pick for the best restaurant in the area, if not the country. The rest of America finally saw David Kinch’s star when he defeated Bobby Flay on Iron Chef recently. The preparation and thoughtfulness of his dishes came across emphatically when juxtaposed next to Flay’s – and he was just cooking cabbage! Of course, for those that know Kinch’s food, the ingredient played to one of his current obsessions – vegetables.
Parmesan churro and crispy kale
The direction of the restaurant parallels a path described by Daniel Patterson’s (Coi, SF) eloquent “Carrots are the new Caviar”.2 Over the past few years, the menu at Manresa has shifted from an international anything-goes-as-long-as-it’s-of-the-highest-quality approach to a far more local approach. The emphasis has been on re-interpretating fine dining with the ample bounty of the area, all in a bid to create a cuisine of “time and place”, as Kinch likes to say in interviews. This is what distinguishes Manresa from the Chez Panisse clones that permeate the area, and place it alongside Noma (Denmark) as part of a loose movement to advance a different approach to haute cuisine. Patterson states in his article that the fine dining trappings are “more important as cultural signifiers than as actual experiences.” The tremendous results Kinch has obtained from weaving Love Apple Farms garden’s bounty into the Manresa menu is proof that “ordinary” vegetables deserve to be showcased in a fine dining setting.
This was my birthday Manresa meal, last March. Not all of the pictures turned out. And, as in the past, the chef knew I was coming.
Seafood is what hooked me first at Manresa, thanks to both the impeccable quality and Kinch’s restrained preparations. The local bounty has limitations so Kinch sources fish from Japan, among other places. When local treats like Monterey Spot prawns or abalone are on the menu, they will often be among the best dishes. Nearly all chefs serve a crudo-type course, or two, these days but the results suffer from fish quality or heavy-handed Nobu-like recipes; at Manresa, there is often a minimalism at play where the flavors of the fish are lifted and complemented.
The Spring Tidal Pool seems to be a divisive dish among diners for its liberal use of salt. This could arguably be a case where art and concept might be sacrificed slightly to accommodate a wider range of tastes. Usually appearing around the 3/4 mark of the menu, I find that its salinity helps invigorate the taste buds for the upcoming cooked fish and/or meats. The dish also has emotional tugs for those who grew up near oceans and it provides a reflective moment before embarking on the last quarter of the journey.
Kin-medai, sashimi style, with olive oil and chives
Shellfish, a tapenade of toasted seaweed with yuzu-sea salt snow, buckwheat honey
Spot prawns, stewed onion, sorrel and corriander
A spring tidal pool
Sea bream, bone marrow and vegetable tears
The vegetables dishes are fresh, thanks to the garden, but it is the conceptual nature of the dishes that lift them into rarefied territory. Into the Vegetable Garden has quickly become an iconic dish in American fine dining, with variations at other restaurants. They all pay homage to Michel Bras’s infamous Gargouille – if you’ve never had that dish, it alone is worth the trip. Into the Vegetable Garden is a known surprise – it will appear on the tasting menu but, because of the season, its composition is unclear until it is served.
Cabbage and caviar
Into the vegetable garden…
Root vegetable risotto without rice
With each successive meal (anywhere), I grow more and more tired of that “big (meat) hit” at the end – rarely does it live up to the accomplishment of previous dishes. Manresa is not immune to my criticism here but the meat dishes are often better, in part to the superior sourcing.
On this night, to my utter disbelief, Suckling kid goat, curds, and whey was clearly the best dish of the night – astonishing. The goat, growing in popularity, was braised and there was textural magic between it and the curds and whey. The textures were similar but just slightly distinct – the stringy goat provided just slightly more bite than the stringy curds. The goat’s melting quality complemented the creaminess of the dish, with the curds providing just the right note of acidity to offset the richness.
Suckling kid goat, curds and whey
Spring lamb, slowly roasted with leeks, anchovy
The only thing left to say, after at least 15 meals, is “go” and “get the tasting menu.”
1 – Pizza in San Francisco is pretty good, though not Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix) good. On some days, you can have an enjoyable pie at Delfina, Beretta, Pizetta 211, Gialina, Pizzeria Picco, San Marzano (Oakland), and more. My only gripe is that all of them are too inconsistent for their lofty reputations (and, often, waits.) I have not tried Flour+Water yet but the pictures look good.
2 – The two chefs are friends and I’d speculate there is a steady exchange of thoughts and ideas between the two.